22 March 2013

'Old Hats'

A dictionary will define the phrase ‘old hat’ as ‘uninteresting, stale, or trite from overuse.’  Another definition is ‘long-practiced, well-known, or conventional.’  Third, you’ll find ‘being experienced or skilled.’  Of these definitions, the first one doesn’t apply at all to the Bill Irwin-David Shiner performance at the Pershing Square Signature Center the two physical comedians call Old Hats, which I caught on the evening of Friday, 15 March.  In the hands of the two master clowns, the material can’t be overused and will never be uninteresting, stale, or trite.  The second sense is true: Irwin and Shiner teamed for Fool Moon on Broadway 20 years ago, so the gags are clearly long-practiced  and well-known—and they wanted very specifically to revisit conventional clowning and pantomime that harks back to old vaudeville and music hall standards.  It’s true, but the label’s connotation that the work is somehow over-familiar and unimaginative isn’t the least bit applicable.  Only the last definition makes real sense: Irwin and Shiner, both separately and in partnership, are immensely experienced and skilled, having practiced the arts of clowning, mime, and pantomime for 39 years, in Irwin’s case, and 34 for Shiner.  Irwin’s a certified genius, having won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1984, and Shiner has written and directed Cirque du Soleil productions such as 2007’s Kooza.  Of the title of their new production, which started previews in the Signature’s Irene Diamond Theatre on 12 February and opened on 4 March, Irwin himself said:

The idea of trying a new show feels old, now—like its practitioners—but Old Hats as a title, as the repository for the clown thinking of the last year—that feels new.  We tried for a name for a long time and just nailed this one recently, and I must say it feels like it may unleash some energy.  Old Hats.

Before I get too far into this report, let me cop to something moderately significant.  I’m not a fan of clowns.  I have nothing against them—I’m not coulrophobic or anything—and I don’t object to the people who play the clowns.  I’ve just never found clowning very funny, not in circuses or on stage and film.  I can admire the skill of Chaplin or Keaton, but I was never drawn to their movies; I wasn’t a fan of Gleason (I don’t like The Honeymooners even today), Skelton, Lucille Ball, or the Three Stooges, and I don’t much like Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell.  I also ought to admit that there have always been exceptions: the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields, Carol Burnett, Robin Williams—and Bill Irwin and David Shiner. 

I first saw both these guys individually—Irwin in The Regard of Flight (1982) and Largely New York (1989), and Shiner in Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouvelle Expérience in Battery Park City in 1990—and together in Fool Moon in 1993 (which won a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience in ’93 and was revived twice; in its second revival, it won the 1999 Special Tony Award for Live Theatrical Presentation).  I even got to kibbitz at a clown class Bill Irwin taught for an advanced theater program.  The man’s a terrific teacher, as you’d probably guess.  Irwin was the subject of a Signature residency in 2003-04, but I didn’t subscribe that season, so aside from his conventional theater and TV work, I haven’t seen him perform since ’93.  (He did a magical turn as The Flying Man in several episodes of the 1990-95 CBS series Northern Exposure in which he never spoke a word of dialogue.  Then he won a best-actor Tony for his performance as George in the 2005 revival of Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)  I’ve never seen Shiner in any other role than his clown persona, though he’s appeared in several films and on Broadway as The Cat in the Hat in the 2000-2001 musical Seussical.  (Shiner also teaches, at the Bayerische Theaterakademie August Everding in Munich.)

Longevity and the aging that goes with it are a part of the concept for Old Hats, another implication of the title.  Irwin is 62 now (his birthday’s in April) and Shiner’s 59; when they first did Fool Moon, they were 42 and 39 respectively and when they started developing their routines, they were in their 20’s or early 30’s.  “At a certain age, you’re not the young lover anymore,” noted Irwin in an interview, “and you can’t even sort of pretend to be the young lover.  You have to embrace the stage of life that you’re at.  So that’s—hence the title: Old Hats.”  This necessitated changes, at least in attitude if not in outright technique, to such bits as the two (now middle-aged) businessmen on a commuter-train platform and Shiner’s perennial sleazy magician who flirts shamelessly with the women in the audience.  (Irwin, as his once-sexy female assistant, is unabashedly annoyed, but this portrayal must also have been adjusted as well.)  Irwin acknowledges that “there’s a big ache and pain factor” to the work these days, and adds, “In my mind it’s a lot of reflection on getting further into life and, you know, getting to the end . . . .  So it’s a different vantage point to look at life from.”  Youth in Old Hats is provided by quirky singer-songwriter-musician Nellie McKay, 30 (her birthday is also in April)—but more about her later.

In their original Broadway pairing, New York Times reviewer Frank Rich, reporting that Shiner and Irwin should be added to “that short list of unbeatable combinations that includes bacon and eggs, bourbon and soda, and Laurel and Hardy,” concluded “that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts even when the parts are as great as these two beloved clowns.”  The two artists, however, come from quite different backgrounds.  Irwin was formally trained, graduating from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1974, though he didn’t join that circus.  Instead, he went west and helped found the Pickle Family Circus, a small, innovative troupe based in San Francisco.  He left the Pickles in 1979 and began his solo career, working on stages rather than under tents.  Shiner, on the other hand is self-taught, having begun on the streets as a mime and busker.  In 1984, he was discovered in Boulder, Colorado, by the Paris-based festival Cirque de Demain.  He went on to perform with several famous European troupes, including the Circus Roncalli and the Swiss National Circus. He joined the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil in 1990, becoming one of the company’s best-known performers.  Back Stage writer Lisa Jo Sagolla sees Bill Irwin, whose “body seems to transform into a gooey substance that gracefully stretches into all sorts of nuanced postures, gestures, and attitudes,” as “a dancer’s clown,” whereas David Shiner, whose “physical work is more about character, narrative arc, and the slick design of funny actions” that “targets our emotions,” is “an actor’s clown.”  Irwin, born in Santa Monica, California, lives in New York City; native Bostonian Shiner resides in Munich, Germany.

It’s probably out of order to do this here, but I will anyway: Watching Old Hats, which lists Tina Landau as director, I wondered how—or even if—anyone actually directs a show like this, by two (if you will) old hands who’ve been doing this stuff for so long—73 years between them by my calculations—it’s part of their nature.  What did Landau, a well-established director of Broadway and Off-Broadway plays and rep theater productions (she’s a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and worked extensively with New York City's En Garde Arts which specialized in site-specific productions), have to do while Old Hats was developing and rehearsing?  Obviously, she never had to stand in the back of the house and shout the famous direction attributed to George S. Kaufman: “Louder and funnier, please!”  “Louder” isn’t applicable since Irwin and Shiner don’t speak except in one bit, and they couldn’t be funnier.  I suppose she had to be the tech director, shaping the lighting and soundscape for the production, and the traffic director, keeping the performers from getting too far up- or downstage, too far right or left.  I’m not saying that Landau didn’t do anything—clearly Shiner and Irwin didn’t have to have a director if they didn’t want one (no director is credited for Fool Moon, for example), so they must have felt the need—but I just don’t know what she did do for Old Hats.

David Shiner says when they work on a new show, “We basically goof off until we find something funny,” and Bill Irwin says the work is “really a sort of doodling until you feel like you may have started to draw something.”  I suppose Landau could have been sitting in the room reacting to the doodles and the improvs; if she laughed, then the guys could feel they were on to something.  Shiner says they tried to follow the advice his wife gave him: “Just try to have fun in the studio and forget all the other stuff.”  I recently quoted (in my 17 March report on The Dance and the Railroad) my friend Kirk Woodward from a booklet he wrote on directing as asking, “Will this set be fun for the actors?  . . . .  Will they have a good time in it?”  For this kind of work, described by Irwin as “often a semi-improv process,” that atmosphere is pushed back to the rehearsal space, which is “like a big playroom,” according to Jeff Lunden, a radio reporter who observed a day of the work: “there are all kinds of homemade props littered about, just in case Shiner or Irwin want to try something new.”  Maybe Landau, whom I don’t believe ever worked with Irwin or Shiner before, could toss out ideas, but something tells me that not only don’t the two clowns need the input, but that they have their own (successful) gag-generator.  “It just starts with an idea,” explains Shiner, then, Irwin notes, “one of us does something and the other goes ‘oh yeah . . . well, what about THIS?’”   The inspiration can come from anywhere.  “I cannot now remember how we began on some of the bits and ideas that feel most promising in Old Hats,” confesses Irwin.  “Sometimes it’s because something is at hand—a prop happens to be there.” 

Much of the development of a new show like Old Hats is mysterious.  The prop that inspired a routine?  A happy accident, right?  “But then how did that prop happen to be there?” wonders Irwin.  “Better not to think about it sometimes.”  “No one ever knows how you make clown material,” Irwin reveals.  “Starts to feel and sound very silly when examined too closely,” he adds, and then repeats, “—that’s why we often don’t think about it too much.”  In a way, that’s how the two clowns came together, before collaborating on Fool Moon.  They’d seen and admired each other’s work and set up a meeting when Shiner was in New York City in 1990 with Cirque du Soleil.  The meeting didn’t really work—probably it was too contrived and deliberate.  Then they were cast together in Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue as two medicine-show clowns, and while filming in 1992, they began improvising together—and it clicked.  The next year, Silent Tongue was released in January and Shiner and Irwin opened on Broadway in Fool Moon in February.  Of course, none of this is really easy (dying is easy, as everyone knows, comedy is hard!).  Mystery or not, “It’s hard work,” points out Shiner.  (A little harder now than it used to be, according to the guys.)  So Landau could certainly have served as a sounding board, a friendly presence. 

We’re not supposed to see any of that hard work, of course.  “The last thing you ever want to do is show any effort,” insists Irwin.  “Even though there's a lot of work involved, and it's—you don't want to show any effort!”  Of course, that’s generally true of all performing, but when the effort is as prodigious as it must be here, the implication of such an axiom is major.  What we see is a seemingly effortless, smoothly presented, and seamless show, with the only hitches and accidents provided by the audience.  Set up like an old-time vaudeville evening, there are ten or a dozen separate routines of varying lengths, including interstitial mishegoss, over a two-hour performance with one intermission.  The bits, which are unconnected thematically to one another like standard music-hall entertainments, are separated by musical interludes by McKay and her band—Alex Davis on bass, Mike Dobson on percussion, Tivon Pennicott on sax and flute, and Kenneth Salters on drums; McKay performs either sitting at or standing by her upright piano—she also plays the ukulele for some numbers—on a little extension off stage right or before the curtain down front on the apron.  (G. W. Mercier, who’s also responsible for the costumes, included a replica of an old-fashioned proscenium arch with a gold-trimmed, red velvet drape in his scenic design for Old Hats.  The Diamond doesn’t ordinarily have either.)  Some of the routines are . . . well, old hat (not a negative) and others are obviously new or retooled, but they have two things in common: they’re all imbued with the irrepressible spirit and dynamic of Shiner and Irwin, an unmistakable characteristic, and there’s an element of competition running through the whole show.  “One of the primary ingredients is always competition,” asserts Irwin.  The competitiveness is a theme and it’s a structural through-line (and I’ll get to that shortly). 

At the stage-left edge of the platform is a signboard, just like in old-time vaudeville theaters, which announces the title of each bit (“The Businessman,” “The Debate”) and McKay’s songs (“Mother of Pearl,” “Bo De Ga”)—except that the sign in Old Hats isn’t a placard that a scantily-clad chorine comes out to switch between routines . . . it’s an electronic video screen, like a giant tablet or a TV monitor standing vertically, which magically changes graphics, still in an old vaudeville style.  I don’t know if that was meant to be important or just a convenient solution to a technical need, but it tickled me: a 21st-century update to a little bit of 19th-century pop entertainment tradition.  Just a tweak—harmless, but clever and kind of fun!  And I must mention, at least in passing, the opening sequence, which is a marvel of live actors playing off of computer-controlled technology.  It’s a little reminiscent of Indiana Jones (I won’t go into specifics) and many space operas, and it’s exhilarating.  The projection designs are by Wendell K. Harrington, who surely must be a genius in his own right, and the by-play between his creations and Irwin and Shiner, the way the two clowns work with the projections and the way the projections essentially pull them in (literally at times) is truly magical.  (I’m compelled to quote sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

The competition between the two clowns, as I said, is a theme of Old Hats, but it’s also a unifying element.  It’s an aspect of their creative process together, too.  “The one constant when David and I are working is competition—the utterly predictable idea of male competition,” explains Irwin.  “It’s like a fuel source—you can almost always make wheels turn with its power.”  When one artist responds to an idea of the other by exclaiming, “Well, what about THIS?,” there’s implied one-upsmanship in play—and that’s how the two come up with their gags.  It’s in the routines, too.  The most obvious application is “The Debate,” a skit about two over-earnest pols standing behind podiums as they vie unabashedly to sway the voters’ allegiance.  (Make note of the Mitt Romney-inspired wigs, designed by Erin Kennedy Lunsford, and the gleaming Jimmy Carter teeth.)  Not a word is spoken (and wouldn’t that be a boon!), but each time one candidate makes a point or scores one, the other comes back with a topper.  When Shiner’s office-seeker tries to reach out to shake the hand of a spectator, he can’t reach far enough.  So Irwin counters by sending a fake hand on the end of an accordion grabber that shoots out through the front of the lectern into the house!  The competition is measured by the two large arrow dials, one behind each candidate, that rotate up when one scores a point and down when he loses one.  In “The Encounter,” a piece that appeared in Fool Moon and has been adjusted to reflect the passing of years, two commuters meet on the platform as they await a train.  They argue and scold one another wordlessly, but with unbelievable physical control that’s perfectly matched between the two performers.  Eventually they compare ailments and pains and share their remedies and pills—and Shiner gives one to Irwin that gives him an instant erection, visible even though the two are wearing the world’s baggiest pants!  (One pill makes them larger—in specific ways, it seems—and one pill makes them small.  Ahem.)  Surely this is an allusion to the proliferation on late-night TV of ads for what Craig Ferguson, host of The Late Late Show on CBS, likes to call “boner pills,” something new (or at least more prominent) in our culture since Fool Moon. 

In “The Magic Act,” David Shiner plays a smarmy stage magician (with an act so old, it creaks) who flirts blatantly with the women in the audience.  His competition, in this instance, isn’t another magician (so don’t think of The Incredible Burt Witherstone), but his jealous assistant, played by Irwin in drag.  “She” shoots him looks that would wither an ordinary man and steps in to interfere when he gets too close to connecting.  But there’s implied competiveness in some of the solo bits as well.  In “The Businessman,” Bill Irwin is essentially drawn into a mortal struggle with his iPhone and iPad, which threaten to swallow him up.  The image on the tablet, which is ultimately projected on a giant screen upstage into which Irwin disappears, is Irwin’s own face, and the tablet and images become living partners in performance.  Irwin’s in deadly competition with his e-avatar!

Watching Irwin, open-faced, affable and innocent, and Shiner, spikier, edgier, and darker, play off and with one another is a wonder.  I saw Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy work together and, before that, Celeste Holm and Wesley Addy, two of theater’s best-matched acting couples.  This clown couple’s duo work is stunning in its coordination and near-telepathic communication, but their solo work is magnificent, too.  Irwin’s “Businessman” is not just a terrific commentary on personal technology but an impossibly clever and inventive performance in 21st-century theater: a live actor playing off of computers and technology.  The coordination of Irwin, the tablet, and the big-screen projection is astounding: the control alone, to keep things in synch, must have been daunting.  (“The Businessman” is one of the bits that was inspired by new cultural phenomena: experimental tablets appeared around 2005, the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad didn’t come out until 2010, over a decade-and-a-half after Fool Moon.  Irwin explains, “The place these things have in our culture is so fascinating and so potentially, eh, useful for a clown that I just said, ‘Oh, we have to have [a] piece in the show where a guy is totally mesmerized by his two pieces of equipment and then they take over his life, in a bad dream way, from thence!’”  The piece couldn’t even have existed without the proliferation of tablets since a smart phone wouldn’t have been visible from the stage.)

The most poignant and moving performance of the evening, a distinction all the greater because of the superlative quality of the whole presentation, is “The Hobo,” Shiner’s homage to Emmett Kelly.  “I've always wanted to do a hobo,” declares Shiner. “Always.”  And so, he presents his version of Weary Willie, a sad sack for whom nothing comes right.  He sits dejectedly on a park bench and rummages through a trash can.  He finds a lovely flower, which delights him briefly . . . until it wilts in his hand.  He finds a stuffed animal . . . but it’s broken and falls apart.  There’s a kitty . . . but, of course, it’s dead.  A jack-in the box looks like fun . . . until it opens to emit naught but a blast of dust in Shiner’s face.  A cell phone works . . . but it calls 911 to remind him (and us) that this world is fraught with unpleasantness.  Finally, he assembles from an old broom, a piece of discarded cloth, and an empty liquor bottle, a female companion—the best he can do and, sadly, it’s enough.  For a funny man, Shiner sure knows how to tug the heartstrings!  (I’m desperately trying to provide an idea of Old Hats while at the same time not giving away the wonderful surprises and turns the gags all take.  The show, which was originally scheduled to close on 7 April, has recently been extended until 9 May, allowing plenty of time for ROT readers to catch it for themselves, and I don’t want to spoil it.)

Shiner’s signature gag is to get the audience to work with him, as anyone who’s ever seen him will know.  He does it in every performance.  First, he goes into the audience and essentially annoys some select spectators.  (My mother was one of his targets years ago when she saw a Cirque du Soleil production in Washington.)  “I love going into people’s private space without being invited,” he admits.  Every time I’ve watched him do that—he actually used to climb into the audience, over the seats and through the spectators sitting there—I wondered how he managed to get away with that without someone hauling off and slugging him!  In Old Hats, Shiner doesn’t climb through the house, he goes up the aisles and gets to people seated along the edges of the auditorium.  Maybe that’s another concession to age (or the Signature nixed the idea of climbing over the brand-new seats in its two-year-old home).  Nonetheless, he still gets away with it, and the viewers all howl, even the butts of his tomfoolery.

Shiner also confesses, “I love bringing people up that are unprepared and don't know what they're getting themselves into and pushing them to the limit,” and he proves it with his other signature piece, the “Cowboy Cinema.”  If you’ve ever seen a David Shiner performance, you know that he goes into the audience and shanghais three spectators to appear in his silent western, and one to be his Cecil B. DeMille.   He gets his “villain” to grab the “ingénue” he’s never met before and kiss her and throw her onto the bar; he gets the “hero” to pretend to ride a horse like a little kid playing Wild West and throw a temper tantrum before he gets shot a dozen times and has to jerk about with each bullet strike until he collapses on the floor.  Meanwhile, “C. B.” (who on the evening I saw the show was David Cote of Time Out New York and New York 1) has to scratch his butt and grab his crotch in front of 300 or so total strangers each time he comes out to slate the take with the clapperboard.  And they do it every time—with a little prompting and several “retakes” as everyone, including the “actors,” belly-laugh all through the proceedings.  (Some commentators I read suggested that these volunteers might be ringers, pros planted in the house for Shiner’s benefit.  Unless Cote has a Doppelganger who’s an actor—and not an especially good one—I don’t buy the contention.  Remember, I used to be in that line, and no actor can act that badly on purpose.)

All these scenes are enacted without words—and very few vocal sounds.  (There are other sound effects, principally those handled by Mike Dobson, the percussionist, who’s also credited as the Foley artist because he makes the non-musical sound effects that punctuate some of the gags.)  Between the gags, Nellie McKay covers the costume and set changes, and she occasionally interacts with Shiner and Irwin (as when she and her band come in late to the performance), but while McKay speaks, the two clowns don’t, responding in pantomime the way Harpo Marx played off of Groucho or Chico.  But in the second half of the show, McKay encourages the guys to speak—and the dam bursts briefly as Bill Irwin breaks into a rendition of “Oklahoma!” and David Shiner, one-upping his partner again, spews out Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.  For a while, we get to hear all the things the silent clowns keep bottled up all their performing lives: lines from every imaginable movie.  Needless to say, it’s a godawful mess, and finally the genii is shoved back in the bottle, but not before McKay, Shiner, and Irwin get together for one of her off-beat numbers.

McKay, by the way, is a trip all by herself.  I can’t say that all her material dovetails with Irwin and Shiner’s hijinks; some of it seems to be in the wrong key for this show.  For the most part, however, her interludes are off-center and skewed, especially coming from a petite blonde pixie who looks like she ought to be going off to the prom with the captain of the baseball team.  As Bill Irwin characterizes McKay, who joined the ensemble in 2011, “She is as wild and eccentric as any of our work is.”  In “Mother of Pearl,” for instance, a song opposing women’s activism, the refrain is “Feminists don't have a sense of humor," and it ends with the declaration: “I’m Michele Bachmann and I approved this message.”  In “Won’t U Please B Nice?” which sounds like a sweet ’30s ballad, McKay sings lyrics such as: “If we part / I’ll eat your heart / So won’t you please be nice.”  (McKay won a Theatre World Award for her portrayal of Polly in the 2006 Broadway revival of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera.  She’s released five albums, wrote and recorded songs for the 2005 film Rumor Has It . . . and appeared in the 2007 film P.S. I Love You.)

The press, as you might guess, was ecstatic nearly across the board.  (Bill Irwin and David Shiner are like puppies in a way: how can anyone say anything bad about them?)  Since I’ve already mentioned the Times, let me start there.  Charles Isherwood was positively giddy, calling Old Hats an “ebullient new show” in which the “supremely talented performers display the bubbly energy and shining vitality—not to mention amazingly elastic faces and limbs—of men half their age.”  In conclusion, Isherwood asserted, “Inspiration almost never flags in ‘Old Hats.’”  Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News described the show as a “comic tasting menu,” which I think is very apt (and not a complaint).  “The goal here,” he affirmed, “is simply to make you smile and laugh for 110 minutes,” to which Dziemianowicz correctly declared, “Mission accomplished.”  The clowns’ performances, the News reviewer wrote, are “supple and elastic,” and so are “their creative brains and body language.”  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli called Old Hats “one of the funniest shows of the past few years,” pointing out that “not many can pull gales of laughter out of thin air the way Irwin and Shiner do.”  Newsday’s Linda Winer characterized Old Hats as a “delirious joy of a show” which Landau “directed with helium-weight virtuosity.”  (Of McKay, who got great notices in all the press, Winer said, “If Nellie McKay did not already exist, Bill Irwin and David Shiner would have had to make her up.”)

Old Hats is “a vaudevillian lark that's all pleasure,” said Alan Scherstuhl of the Village Voice, and “every bit as funny as a charitable theatergoer might hope for.”  Marilyn Stasio described the performance in Variety as “a brilliant oddball of a show” and a “comic puree of ancient vaudeville routines, traditional circus acts, and classic mime pieces” which have been “overhauled with biting wit for a modern-day sensibility.”  “[S]martly staged by Tina Landau,” affirmed Stasio, the show is “loaded with sly insinuations about who we are and how we live today.”  In Back Stage, Lisa Jo Sagolla characterized the performance as “[a]n uproarious comic revue” which “make[s] us laugh hysterically.”  It offers “something for everyone,” the Back Stage reviewer asserted, “no matter your clowning or musical tastes.”  Describing Old Hats as “an evening of deliciously absurd skits,” even though “some of the skits are more sobering; even melancholy,” Jan Rosenberg of Show Business warned that “some of the clown humor does get tiring after a while, and some acts meander on for a bit too long.”  The Show Biz writer does conclude, though, that “overall, it’s quite impossible to sit through Old Hats without laughing.  Unless, that is, your funny bone is not in tact [sic].”  In Time Out New York, Adam Feldman wrote of the two stars that “their polymorphous complementarity leaves the audience buzzing with joy.”  (I just had to put that in!)  He summed up by stating, “If you let yourself miss this marvelous diversion, the more fool you.”  Hear, hear!

In the cybersphere, reviews mostly were along the same vein as the printed stuff.  Deirdre Donovan on CurtainUp pointed out, for instance, that “Old Hats is . . . loaded with laughs” even as it “adds new-fangled material.”  “The light-hearted show has its sobering, and even tragic-tinged, moments,” remarked the cyber-reviewer, however.  Old Hats is “a brilliant new piece that has one foot in the past, one in the present,” concluded Donovan, but “[t]here's nothing stale here.”  On TheaterMania, Kimberly Kaye asserted, “We laugh, inexplicably and uproariously” at the “parade of vignettes and musical interludes.”  Of the clown pair, she wrote,Their ability to defy and exceed expectations simultaneously is the magic trick that dazzles most, and lingers.”  Finally, Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray struck the only generally negative note.  Having extolled the wonders of Irwin and Shiner’s gags, Murray added that they “don’t need any additional help—yet they receive it anyway.  It comes courtesy of Nellie McKay and her band.”  While he didn’t object to the songs themselves, he complained that “so many such additions (there are seven full-length numbers), which receive so little participation from the ostensible stars, quickly spoil the flow and flavor of the proceedings.”  Then Murray noted that “[director Tina] Landau has apparently not entirely decided whether this is supposed to be a rebirth of a moribund form or an elaborate comment on it,” observing that there was a lack of coordination among Mercier’s costumes and sets, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting, and Harrington’s projections with respect to the tone.  In the end, Murray insisted, “no point beyond the resiliency of the practitioners is ever made.”  (I’m not sure what he expected from a clown vaudeville.  It isn’t Ibsen or Chekhov he was seeing!)  Murray’s final comment?  “The biggest flaw of Old Hats is that not enough people involved have seen that they can, and should, leave Irwin and Shiner alone far more often than they do.”  (By the way, how come all these cyber-reviewers have double initials: DD, KK, MM?  Is that a job requirement?)

Look, I said I’m not a big fan of clowns as a rule, but I enjoy Irwin and Shiner thoroughly.  I don’t find them so bereft of import as Murray apparently does—it’s just subtler than straight drama, and it’s couched in clown terms, so you have to suss it out a little.  But it isn’t supposed to be so laden with social commentary that the silliness is overwhelmed—that isn’t clowning.  Do people go to ballet to see social commentary?  Not much, I wouldn’t think.  They go to see superb physical control and graceful, powerful movement expressing emotions and thoughts.  Well, that’s what Irwin and Shiner do—with an emphasis on humor rather than grace, perhaps, but with the same display of bodily control and expressiveness.  It happens that these two go beyond mere expert physicality: they’re immensely clever, inventive, and creative, so that what they do isn’t just well-executed, but often surprising and astounding.  That’s way more than enough to make good theater—and good clowning.  To demand more strikes me not only as excessive, but arrogant as well. 


  1. After seeing 'Old Hats,' I described my experience to my friend Kirk Woodward (a frequent contributor to ROT) and he decided to see it for himself. On Saturday, 30 March, Kirk did see the show and he wrote me the following note:

    "It was a marvelous afternoon. I agree with pretty much everything you said except perhaps about Tina Landau's role; I can see a lot that she could have been responsible for. I actually spoke to Bill Irwin briefly after the show; I happened to be by the backstage door, waiting for someone, and he was there when the staff let someone in to meet him. He looked out the door and said to us, 'Thanks for coming!' and I said, 'Thanks for the show.' 'We have fun,' he said, starting to withdraw, and I said, 'And you share it!' and he came back and said, 'That's it!'"

    Thanks, Kirk. I thought the exchange with Bill Irwin was worth sharing with ROT readers.


  2. Rick, I have posted before. I saw your 2009 posting about Leo Shapiro, who graduated from Windsor Mountain School in 1963, same year I did. Please contact me by email at rickgoeld@cox.net. I have more questions.

    1. Mr. Goeld:

      If your questions pertain to the Windsor Mountain post, please ask them on the site. I don't have much more information, however, than I've included in the ROT article.